“Buon Carnevale!”, I heard everywhere in the two days that I stayed in Ivrea, Piedmont. The Carnival’s main event, the Battle of the Oranges, is known outside of Italy as one of the largest food fights in the country and one of the most peculiar events in Europe. However, as I discovered during my stay, there is more to the Carnival of Ivrea than just the famous battle.
La Mugnaia (The Miller’s Daughter)
The Carnival tradition goes back to medieval times although over the centuries many additional rituals and ceremonies were added to it and the event became bigger. The locals will tell you that it all started with a beautiful girl called Violetta, a miller’s daughter, who chopped the local tyrant’s head when it was her turn to fulfil his “jus primae noctis” demand on the eve of her wedding and inspired the oppressed locals to start an uprising. However, historians think it was more prosaic and the heavy local tax burden caused the popular revolt. Since 19th century Violetta, La Mugnaia, became the main personage of the Carnival and a symbol of freedom of Ivrea. Nowadays, a special committee chooses La Mugnaia every year whose name remains secret until the second day of the Carnival. It is always a local married woman with children, often from a family that are active in the civic life of Ivrea. Crowds gathered on the main piazza explode with joy and everyone screams “Viva La Mugnaia!” when she appears on the balcony of the town hall. During the Carnival, she has many duties: visit homes for the elderly, a hospital, throw sweets and flowers to the crowds.
As I found out the prestigious title comes at a price: the woman who plays the charming miller’s daughter pays all the expenses involved, and the total bill can be anything between €15,000 and €25,000. For an outsider it is not easy to understand the significance of this role, so I asked Barbara Bellardi, who was La Mugnaia in 2007, why she agreed to do it. “That’s what every local girl in Ivrea dreams about”, Barbara told me. “My little daughter often stands on the balcony and waves her hands at the imagined crowds below. It is a tradition that is in our blood”.
The Carnival of Ivrea is not just about dressing up and acting silly as many other similar events. Each ceremony and characters involved echo the past of this small town: The General of the Napoleonic Army with officers, the Assistant Grand Chancellor, Magnifico Podestà. Apart from looking handsome in their spectacular period costumes, they all have their historic duties and strict rituals to follow. Every year different people enact the personages and it is taken very seriously. I heard a local woman saying that the General this year had pneumonia and high temperature but there was no way he would miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play an important characters in the Carnival, so he stoically fulfilled his responsibilities.
The Battle of the Oranges
The orange fight attracts excited crowds. In fact, there are three fights over the course of four days of the Carnival. This year the weather was miserable: rain, snow and freezing cold, however, it didn’t dampen the spirits. The spectators stood behind protective nets waiting for the fight to begin and orange throwers were filling up their bags with juicy weapons. The first cart slowly entered the square and the smell of squashed oranges filled the air: oranges were flying in all directions, smashing against helmets, heads, carts and the ground. I was glad to be protected by the net, although, somewhere deep inside, I wished I could be there, on the messy battlefield, hurling the bright fragrant fruit at the “enemy”.There are two types of orange throwers (aranceri): the ones on foot (representing the revolutionaries) and on horse-drawn carts (the tyrant’s army). Each fighter gets about 100kg of oranges as weapons, which is about 240 oranges to hurl. This year there were 51 carts and about 6000 throwers divided in nine teams, with their own uniform, traditions and headquarters. Some of them have existed for over 60 years and children follow in their fathers’ steps joining the same team. Apart from a small membership fee aranceri pay €100 each (the horse-cart aranceri pay about €300) to participate in the Battle of the Oranges. There is no age limit, anyone from young to old can join.
We walked from one square to another following the carts to see different teams. On one narrow street aspiring aranceri were practicing their orange throwing skills under parents’ supervision. They happily propelled oranges up at the slow moving carts where the exhausted “tyrants” were taking a break from the real battle. Now and then, one of the horse-cart team members would squash an orange to make it softer and gently drop it down on the kids with a laugh. A little boy in front of me, thrilled with excitement after throwing an orange, ran up to his mother saying, “It is so much fun, mummy! I think I will enrol in the team next year!” At the end of the battle, I was thinking exactly the same!
Is the Carnival of Ivrea sustainable?
Absolutely! I asked questions, watched attentively and can assure you that this is certainly one of the most sustainable Carnivals in Italy! The oranges for the battle are bought from selected producers in Sicily and are guaranteed mafia-free. The event brings €2.2 million to the local economy. Many local businesses thrive making and selling uniforms and costumes. During the Carnival everyone wears Italian-made themed accessories: red sock-shaped Phrygian cap, earrings and pins with the Carnival symbols, stylish rubber boots with red ribbons.
The Carnival of Ivrea costs about €1.2 million to organise, however, the participants foot most of the bill. Not for a moment I felt that it was a commercial event, a kind of Halloween borrowed from abroad for driving sales and profits. Of the total number of visitors, only 5% come from abroad. So, it is a real off-the-beaten-track adventure. To get into the Carnival spirit do as the locals: put a Phrygian cap and rubber boots on, take an orange in your hand and hurl it as hard as you can while shouting at the top of your voice “Viva La Mugnaia!”
I visited the Carnival of Ivrea on a blog tour organised by the Turismo Torino e Provincia. All opinions expressed in the article are my own.